Indian Education – Focus on Inputs or Outcomes?

When the failures of the mass education system have been on such a vast scale it might be understandable if some say we shouldn’t expect too much or aim too high. Ever since the Right to Education Act was passed the debate has been on about the fact that the Act, almost entirely, focuses upon educational inputs (teachers, classrooms, toilets, playgrounds and space) rather than outcomes – quality of learning etc.

This Wall Street journal puts the case that the Act has got it right and is a ‘worthy first step’. The gist of the argument appears to be – when we’re starting from such a sorry low base, it would be unrealistic to set out any desirable outcomes;

Wall Street Journal – India Real Time Article

Whilst I agree with the assessment of woeful basic amenities in the vast majority of schools in the country, I don’t agree that this justified an ‘inputs only’ piece of legislation. To suggest that this will result in a magical speedy solution of the one problem, that will miraculously cause the other problem to disappear is untenable. Even if you suggest that the government would focus exclusively on inputs for a time, then following up with measures to address ‘outcomes’ is to expect way too much of government.

That the scale of the challenges is vast has been further highlighted with this week’s news of the results of the recent experiment to include two states (Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) in the OECD PISA tests, used by OECD countries to benchmark their public education systems. These two states are deemed to be amongst the more advanced with regard to standards of public education. Nevertheless, the results were awful with the country barely managing to score above just one other included country – Kyrgyzstan:

The Hindu – Report on PISA Results

Times of India – Report on PISA Results

Sadly, I fear that there is a very simple reason why the Act was all about inputs only – because Goal Number Two of the Millenium Development Goals under United Nations declaration of Human Rights also happens to be couched only in terms of inputs. The cynic in me fears that the Act was driven more by a need to fulfil this international obligation than a genuine desire to bring a paradigm shift in the quality of educational experience for the nation’s children.

One person quoted in the WSJ article condemns focus on ‘outputs’ out of hand because we shouldn’t be focusing unduly on testing students. This is terribly simplistic. There is ample evidence from other countries that testing students with summative assessments is by no means the only way to measure/ monitor or guide educational outputs. If the desired outputs (in skill development terms rather than bodies of facts learned) had been given equal emphasis in the legislation it might be true that many schools would not have been able to aspire too high on quality factors until they had addressed more fundamental issues of provision. Nevertheless, all educators would have had a road map for where the country was aiming for. The Act could have been accompanied with templates that could be used on a local basis to address both issues of provision and outputs. The ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ facets are not sequential, they are contemporaneous and should have been treated as such.

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